When I first saw the preview for Water for Elephants in the cinema, I thought my wife would love it. While the central marketing angle of Water for Elephants was as a love story, the story gives much more attention broader themes of honour, dignity and stewardship.
Vet student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) joins the circus after the death of his parents. Christoph Waltz stars as the circus master August, whose public showmanship belies an iron rule. Waltz was sublime as the charismatic Nazi in Inglorious Basterds, and he turns in another strong performance here. August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) performs in the circus too, riding the prize show horse. Following the sickness of the main show horse which is eventually put out of its misery, the circus master seeks a new act and purchases an elephant around which to build a show.
The elephant does not cooperate with Waltz commands and he constantly jabs the beast to make it conform to his wishes. After the animal goes on a rampage during a show, Waltz severely injures the animal in punishment in scenes which some might find disturbing. He expects respect even from animals who don’t know better, and when they ignore him he hurts them.
We read in Genesis that one of the tasks that man has before him is to work and care for creation; he was to rule the earth but to do so in a loving and caring way:
Genesis 1:28: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ”
Genesis 2:15: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
All around us we see how man has failed to look after the land and the creatures of the earth, particularly in the harmful industrialization of food sources, the destruction of habitat as well as the many specific cases of animal abuse. Ultimately, the way August treats the elephant is symptomatic of the way August views everything, including his wife – they exist to serve him. Rather than fetching water for elephants – caring for the things under his care – August neglects and exploits.